Letter from Irma: Day 0 by Madeleine H. Burnside

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Letter from Irma: Day 0

Irma has not yet touched Florida but we can feel it coming. It's been a sunny day with a breeze that's just a bit too strong. I live about half a mile west of the Intracoastal. To the east is Palm Beach proper (known locally as "the island" in the snobbish way New Yorkers talk about Manhattan as "the city" as though no other such place exists).

Dawn over the Intracoastal from Bryant Park, Lake Worth, FL. Photo: Madeleine H. Burnside

Mar-a-Lago is six miles north of my house by car, closer as the egret flies. I assume all the King’s men have it buttoned up pretty tight. Locals joke about storming the palace after Irma comes through to demand shelter and fine dining if things go bad here.  Anyway, Palm Beach is a barrier island--I just want it to do its job. A day ago the eye was scheduled to come right over our heads, but now the track has drifted west of Lake Okeechobee. Good for us; bad for Key West, Orlando, and Tampa. The only rule hurricanes observe is that wherever they seem to be headed a few days out is not where they plan to end up. If you know this, it feels safer to be the target for a while, knowing it will shift. Now I'm just worried it will shift back.

I'm staying home for the hurricane. Do I think it's dangerous? Sure. Yes. Somewhat. But, when I lived in Key West, my job was such that I had to stay, so I got really used to these storms. My worst fear? Running out of gas in bumper-to-bumper traffic going north for no very good reason. The sage advice is, if you’re not in an evacuation zone, don’t clog up the roads. You are better off at home, as long as you’re satisfied that it’s sturdy and you’ve had time to gather resources. My house was built in 1925 out of Dade County pine—wood so strong that it was logged to extinction. The house is elevated several feet from ground level and I trust those old guys to have known what they were doing.

Still, for Irma, I might have evacuated if it was just me, but my friend who lives in the other part of my duplex used to be a sailor. She went through Hurricane Hugo on a boat in the Caribbean--she feels she knows from hurricanes and prefers to take care of any problems as they arise. Between us we have two dogs and two parrots--there are many reasons we are staying.

This is not Houston. I feel terrible for those people. What a hideous mess. Lives ruined, the whole city will remain a disaster zone for quite a while. When Key West experienced a storm surge my house was on one of the higher parts of the island, and the seven or so inches of water we had flowed right under it and was gone in minutes. In lower parts of the island people got twenty-six inches and had to tear out their sheetrock and redo their electrical wiring--and that water came and went quickly. Still nothing like Houston. Having your house, streets, and everything else flooded as the rain continues to fall is a whole different kettle of stinking fish and sewage. Houston is a bowl. You stand in the middle of it and admire the surrounding hills. A flood there is a serious, devastating, and lingering event.

I took the dogs to the park for a run at 6:45 this morning, just as the dawn came up. They've been bored and antsy because we've not had time to take them for proper walks in the past two days.

There's a lot more to storm prep than putting up shutters. If you have a yard (my friend and I share a big one) every useful and/or decorative thing you have needs to come indoors. Two glass-topped tables and all the chairs. Flower pots. The Buddha statue. Tools that usually live outside have to be squeezed into the shed.

Preparing for a hurricane is like preparing for a visit from meticulous in-laws. I've reorganized the freezer, thrown the science projects out of the fridge, and developed a meal plan. I've vacuumed and cleaned--who knows when any appliances will work again?  I'll do it again Saturday night, more anxiously. I've got water, eggs, and avocados. And I'm a nervous knosher. To hold anxiety at bay I've got chocolate, nuts, and candied ginger. I’ve made ice, ice, ice, and cleaned the giant cooler that I've had since Key West days. I've got a case of excellent Spanish red--the neighbors are staying and we plan a barbecue after Irma passes.

I've got extra propane for the grill, army-grade flashlights, new lanterns, lots of batteries (thank you, Amazon), work gloves, a chain saw, and the usual garden snippers and loppers as well as hammers, cordless screw-guns, wrenches, and fasteners.

I have crocs to wade through puddles--wellies get swamped and sweaty; crocs drain with every step. I've got a yellow sou'wester jacket—a long coat catches the wind and flaps soggily against your legs. I’ve got oversized silk shirts that dry quickly, comfy shorts, and I know when it's better to go into my yard naked and when I need to cover every inch because there are shattered poisonwood leaves everywhere—mango trees shed some of the worst.

I've gassed up the car and I'm charging all the electronics.  Did I forget something?  If so, Momma Irma will notice it and make me suffer for anything I’ve overlooked

The unsuspected news on hurricanes is that when you are not scared, you are tired and bored. That eight to twelve hours of howling passes slowly, minute by minute unless you’re rushing towels to a window or mopping the floor. It grinds at you, bullying the trees, fingering the doors, leering through any uncovered glass, and the wind calls like a siren while spreading garbage.

Rain, endless rain blows sideways--hard.

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